The Art of Whiskey Tasting
The world is so familiar with the concept of wine tasting that it has spawned countless numbers of people who throw out all manner of wine tasting jargon while at parties or a fancy restaurant, even though they have no idea what they are talking about. They are also the type who hide their lack of knowledge behind a contemptible sneer when someone brings up whiskey tasting. Whiskey has every bit the levels of taste, aroma, and character as any wine, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of craft distillers around the world, everyone is starting to find out this remarkable fact for themselves.
Whiskey tasting begins with selecting the right glass. The common misconception is that whiskey should be served in a shot glass or tumbler. These don’t work, when it comes to savoring the whiskey tasting experience because they allow too much of the whiskey’s subtleties to escape while highlighting the spirit’s strongest qualities. The best type of glass is where wine got it right. A whiskey tasting glass should have a stem so that the heat from the hand holding it doesn't warm the drink up. The glass should also be tulip-shaped to release the aroma from the whiskey while catching it around the lip. Differences in bowl sizes in the glass and the top will affect the overall experience in different ways. So, if you are comparing two different whiskeys, use the same type of glass for each.
The whiskey itself should be served at room temperature (64 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, 18 to 22 Celsius). Pouring the whiskey should be done with care so that it is disturbed as little as possible. Once in the glass, the drinker should hold it by the stem and gently turn it so that the whiskey evenly coats the inside of the glass. Now you’re ready, and here’s what to look for.
ColorColor in and of itself isn’t the issue here. Depending on how it was aged and what it was aged in, great whiskeys can vary in color. The important thing here is whether or not the color is natural. Many distilleries take shortcuts and toss in a little caramel E150 coloring to give it a more vibrant hue. It looks nice, and can still taste great, but the artificial coloring can negatively impact the aroma.
ClarityThink of this as a telling trait more than an absolute measuring stick for quality. Whiskeys with an ABV of 45% or less will often have a cloudy hue to them. This isn't a bad thing and is usually a good sign. Some compounds in whiskey aren't soluble except at a higher proof. A lower proof whiskey that is clear often means that the whiskey has been chill filtered, which can take away some of the complexity and aromatic profile.
ViscosityThis is where you find out how strong a whiskey is and how long it’s been aged via the way a whiskey's legs or tears, depending on your preference of terms, stays on the sides of the glass. Alcohol has a lower surface tension than water, and the higher proof the whiskey is, the more tears it leaves behind. Whiskey that has spent more time in the rackhouse will have tears that are further spaced apart.
Now comes the hard part. Once you have given the whiskey a once over for color, clarity, and viscosity, the next step is to let it sit for a few minutes while all the aromas released are collected in the bowl. Sometimes adding one little drop of soft water (literally one small drop from something like a pipette) is a good idea. Doing that can make the aromatic bouquet pop. After all, that, take a deep breath and enjoy.